How to Leave a College Career Fair with a Job

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The temperature is rising, trees are just starting to bloom, and a fog constantly rises from the mountains of Northern New Jersey, all indicating that spring, and with it, College Recruiting season are nigh upon us. Since February, I’ve been at college fairs across the New York region as well as Texas and seen some of the best and brightest students come out and knock the career fair process out of the park, while others have admittedly stumbled a bit more. Here are some of my observations and suggestions for students about to embark on a career search quest from their school.

Reminder, views here do not in any way represent my employer.

Why should you even bother?

Career fairs are a pain. You have to get up potentially early and get dressed up just to have a chance to talk to someone for five minutes to maybe have a chance at an interview. So why bother, especially when pretty much every company offers applications online?

Good companies will send not only recruiting team members, but also hiring managers from teams you may want to work for. These representatives are those highly involved with hiring processes for the organization, and are often the least accessible within the company otherwise. Having a five minute talk with one of them that leaves a strong lasting impression can hugely improve your chances at getting into the hiring pipeline. Creating a champion within the company will also help your chances through the interview and hiring process. While companies like Amazon and Google intentionally firewall interviewers from previously biased participants having someone with a favorable impression of you as part of the process will be of benefit to you.

Practice your pitch

While I’m not a fan of the elevator pitch, after all, I’ve never pitched anything to someone in an elevator except an escape plan when the lights go out, but the ability to quickly make a positive and lasting impression is perhaps the most crucial skill to work on both for career fairs and for life.

Your resume will tell employers your story, but you want to make sure you have something good to put on the back of the cover (book analogy to end here). Studies show you have about 30 seconds to impress someone before they drift off or make a permanent impression of you. Use this time to make sure that the employer will remember you so your name sticks out when they are going back through resumes at the end. The best employers will take notes, but even the very best will have a hard time remembering exactly what your projects were after talking to more than 30 students over several hours. At University of Texas for example, I spoke to 40 students over 4 hours individually, and there were four others with me, speaking to just as many.

Tell the employer not only what you have done, but why they should hire you. What makes you stand out compared to all the other great students. Is it an especially relevant project you worked on, leadership you’ve taken on, or something you learned through experience that makes you unique. The goal is to have your name jump out when they are reviewing resumes later. You want them to say, “Oh, that was the student who worked on speech analysis neural nets!”, or “She seemed to have a lot of good strength of ownership in her work based on that class work she described.”

Focus on your unique skills and abilities, not just what courses you’ve taken. The same five computer science courses are not going to make an impression after talking to a few students. Think about what makes you more qualified or have more potential upside to an employer. Or look at it from the employer’s side. What do you do or have that will benefit them.

Research The Job

This cannot be stressed enough. I’ve had so many students approach me at career fairs saying how interested they are in the company only to not be able to explain why or even what we do beyond a simple sentence. Knowing about the company as well as having some semblance of what employees do is essential. For a job you are serious about, the career fair is not a place to learn what the company does, it’s an opportunity to establish a quick relationship with the company via an employee. You may have targeted and detailed questions about the role or projects. But showing that you were at least interested enough, and had the foresight to do some research on the company shows you have some desirable qualities.

Also try to find out what you can about what skills are desired for the role. This will help you tailor your pitch specifically to the company. If the company is looking for software developers and works on apps, web, and services, talk about your unique experience developing an app across all of these, or lacking that, your desire to work on full stack applications. It doesn’t have to be technical only. Showing an interest or passion in the technologies they use or the market they are in is also a good way to show you are a good fit.

To do this research, start with the company’s website, then try to find their hiring or careers page. LinkedIn and Glassdoor are also good resources for learning more about the roles they have as well as the culture. If the company has a blog or you can find the personal blogs of senior executives, those are a great insight into the focus of the company and what they are looking for as well.

Prioritize

It can be difficult to do this much work for every company you might talk to at a career fair, so prioritize your list to the top few companies you definitely want to talk to. You can still drop off your resume and have a chat with others, but this will give you a good leg up on those that really seem to click for you. I’d suggest 3-5 as any more and you’ll either spend too much time preparing or will get details crossed. Don’t tell Microsoft how much you love their two day drone delivery.

Update Your Resume

A lot of people will advise you to target a resume to each company, I think that’s overkill. You definitely should make sure your resume is up to date, has no typos, and maybe has a little flair. Something beyond the default Microsoft Word resume template does actually tend to catch the eye. More importantly though is to make sure it reads professionally, and is relevant. If your only experience for a software development job is working the counter at Burger King, by all means, include that, but if you have two relevant jobs in the industry and similar coursework, that burger flipping experience just pulls everything else down and looks like you are trying to pad the resume. Let an individual relevant experience speak for itself.

Like your pitch, start with the most relevant information to the job or role and fill in more details as you go. Use the old newspaper method of starting with the lede. The idea is that if someone were to read only the first sentence or paragraph, they would still get the most important information. Each subsequent paragraph should then just fill in more detail.

Also, make sure your LinkedIn and other career site information is correct and up to date. Many employers cross reference these or use them to fill in details in recruiting tools. And please don’t use that gnarly picture of you surfing as your LinkedIn profile picture. Use something professional like a class picture shot. If you don’t have this, put on a nice shirt and have a friend take a nice picture of you with some decent lighting.

On Professionalism

Professionalism is important not just for your resume and LinkedIn, but even more importantly in person as well. Wearing a suit is definitely not necessary for most technology companies, and is becoming less expected for many other roles as well. It still doesn’t hurt. Where it might hurt your chances is if you are so visibly uncomfortable in it that you can’t stand still to talk with an employer. Instead, I suggest a nice business casual approach with button down or sweater with slacks. Note that a hoody or sweatshirt is not a professional sweater. If it isn’t something you would wear to meet the parents of your new significant other for the first time, it’s not nice enough for a career fair either.

Most of us will be dressed in t-shirts and jeans. That is to show you we have a relaxed culture where substance matters more than appearance. It doesn’t mean you should project the same vibe. I’m not saying you won’t get a job if you come in a t-shirt, personally I’d hire the worst dressed person in the world if they were a strong leader with good computer science fundamentals, but it puts you back a step. Plus, dressing the part has been shown to cause a psychological boost in your performance, probably either due to getting you out of your comfort zone or forcing you to visualize yourself in the role. Plus how often do you get to dress up at school?

Before you head over to the fair, do as Freddy Mercury instructs in “Somebody to Love”. “Take a look in the mirror and (don’t) cry”. Your bed head look may be awesome at parties, but it isn’t cool for a potential employer.

One last thought on professionalism: use your school email address or a professional one with just your name. Please don’t use your gamertag or awesome snapchat name for your email address on your resume. BieberFan367@aol.com does not inspire a lot of confidence in professionalism.

Prepare Questions

While you shouldn’t be asking questions about what the company does or makes, you should have some questions prepared to both learn more about the job and show your interest and knowledge (that you gained during your research). You can ask anything, but here are some of the better questions I’ve heard.

“Do you get to choose what language or technology you use?” – This is both cultural and technological. Very good for getting a feel for working in the company.

“What are projects interns worked on in the last three years” – Gets a good sense for the internship program, what the company is focussing on, and the three years part ensures they’ve had a program in place and established for at least some time. It also gets a sense of what the employee has worked on and how involved in the internship program they are.

“How do you decide if you’ll give an intern a full time offer” – Great forward looking question and helps understand the goals, measurement of success, and a little of the company culture.

Just don’t ask questions just to seem like you have questions. I personally get tired of answering the same question about how many employees we have, where our teams are, and how long the internship is, all of which are on the flyer we literally hand out right at the booth.

The Follow Up

There are varied schools of thought on following up after the fair. If you really strike up a great conversation with an employer, it’s fine to ask for a business card or their email for follow up. Just don’t expect them to reciprocate much. The days after a fair are typically fairly busy with processing all of the data collected, debriefing, moving to next steps, as well as just catching up on email from the time at the fair. Also, employers who aren’t recruiters have busy regular jobs (not that recruiters aren’t busy) and may not have all the information you are looking for.

Best is to get the email list for the recruiting team and send a note to them thanking them as well as whomever you talked to for their time and consideration. You can attach your resume as well and reiterate your pitch, but it likely won’t make much impact at this point, you’ve already got all your information into the employer.

If everything went well, you established a strong rapport with an employer, and demonstrated your value for the role, you’ll hopefully hear back from them fairly quickly. On the one hand, it can take some time to process all of the information from the fair, but on the other, employers like to move quickly with college recruiting because students tend to get many offers and need to make quick decisions.

So remember the key ways to prepare for a career fair are to first, ensure you learn as much about your top few companies as much as possible; from their culture to their desired skills, knowledge is power. Then use this knowledge to demonstrate your knowledge and fit to the employers at the fair. Finally, exude professionalism from dress to resume to email address. With these steps taken, you will hopefully show why you belong in the job and will move to the next site, interviews, a whole other beast. And beyond all else, don’t eat a gyro with raw onion and garlic right before the fair like yours truly did once.